Writing the Inhuman: Eco-Spirits without Nature in Malevolent Creatures

by Nina Budabin McQuown

 

Fairies aren’t human. That’s been one of the key concepts we’ve kept in mind as Wit’s End Puppets has developed our current show, Malevolent Creatures. For us that’s meant spending some time thinking about what it means to represent non-humans. We’ve made some technical choices—representing adult humans with actors and fairies with puppets, for example. For me as a writer, trying to write non-humans with agency is one of the most interesting and important challenges that we might face as makers of art. We understand humanity as subjectivity, the capacity to say “I am,” and that’s why stories about the consciousness of trees and the memories of prairie dogs so often make people uncomfortable. If another being is understood to have consciousness, to know time, to feel pain, we have certain responsibilities toward it: maybe we shouldn’t be cutting down trees or shooting prairie dogs or boiling lobsters alive. What’s even more disturbing, of course, is that nothing really needs to change just because we understand trees to be conscious. Cognitive dissonance is always there to help us out. Humans are notoriously good at revoking the privileges of subjectivity from even their neighbors of the same species when it suits them to do so.

In European fairy-tales since the nineteenth-century, the question of humanity has been ditched entirely in favor of a display of morality, but that’s partly because these stories aren’t really about fairies at all. They’re about people, so they have good fairies and bad fairies. There’s Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy queen, and Cinderella’s good fairy godmother. These characters are “good” or “bad” according to human moral systems—do they encourage vanity or sex in young women, or do they reward the values of hard work and humility?

We tend to tell stories about the environment, too, as if they were stories about people: Owls versus loggers, pipelines and banks against native communities, cattle ranchers versus national parks. Human stories have good guys and bad guys, moral stakes and happy or unhappy endings that are based on human social structures and norms and timescales.  Growing up on Captain Planet in the nineties (it played on Sunday mornings, when little Jewish kids like me got to watch cartoons), I was raised with that view of environmentalism. There were the bad guys who like to loot and plunder, and the “you” that the show referred to constantly, an us who held the power to save the world by stopping pollution. The world we were supposed to save was “ours,” just like the power to save it—and the environment that Captain Planet described was ours too, a common resource for human beings whose lives and health were negatively affected by pollution. To put it another way, Captain Planet told a story of environmental advocacy based in human rights. Because humans need the land (for water, for shelter, for energy resources, for enjoyment, for food production), it’s their rights we’re defending in conservation efforts. That’s also often the way that we describe conservation in law. Take Juliana v. U.S., a law suit currently being brought by young people to challenge the USA’s inaction on climate change. They’ve based their case on the constitutionally guaranteed right to life, liberty, and property. That means that to make a legal case, they have to bring the radically planet-altering changes of global warming—the sixth extinction, rising sea levels, dead oceans—down to an impediment in the way of a group of individuals’ happy human lives. 

As we at Wit’s End now try to tell a story about environmental destruction for the sake of resource extraction, we find ourselves dealing with a story that challenges all of those features—that centers the inhuman in an even more prominent way than the stories of Black Annis or Selkie do.  The third part of Malevolent Creatures focuses on Tiddy Mun, a figure from the folklore of the Lancashire and Cambridgeshire fens who represents the whole murky, flooded, malarial, fecund aviary of the fen ecosystem as it was before largescale drainage projects destroyed it starting in the seventeenth-century. 

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Burwell Fen in Cambridgeshire during a flood. 

Yet though he’s certainly a defender of the earth, Tiddy Mun is hardly a champion of human rights. Instead of saving “our” world, he’s out to protect his own, and that means he’s ambivalent towards the humans who inhabit that world and are part of it. It’s Tiddy Mun who brings the floods that destroy houses and crops and lead to outbreaks of malaria, it’s also Tiddy Mun who listens when the people beg for those floods to end and Tiddy Mun who abates them. In the story that’s most often told about Tiddy Mun, he fights back against the destruction of the ecosystem he embodies by destroying the drainage equipment of the engineers who’ve come to drain the fens, killing the engineers themselves, and flooding everything until the common people appease his wrath.

TiddyMun

One visual interpretation of Tiddy Mun, by Susan Sorrell Hill.

The story of that drainage, which is a real historical event in seventeenth-century England, is a complex one. In it, the clarity of right and wrong—at least from the point of view of human beings—can be as murky as bog water. On the one hand, the drainage was a clear case of the wealthy and powerful destroying an ecosystem for their own financial gain. King Charles I wanted the fens drained to produce valuable farmland so that he could circumvent the financial control of a hostile Parliament, and local landowners just wanted to cash in. On the other hand, common people in the fens were not necessarily as mad about the fens’ destruction as they were about being cut out of their share of the profits and displaced by foreigners. Before the land was dried out, malaria was an enormous problem in the fens. The common people who lived there and made their living from fishing and fowling were displaced, but on the other hand, the Dutch engineers who performed the drainage were primarily refugees. As Huguenot protestants living in France and the lowlands, they had been persecuted with massacre and expulsion, and they found a sanctuary and a new life in the fens. The several sides to this story are reflected in its histories. In some of them, the fenmen are the heroes, fighting a losing battle against all the most powerful forces of their society. In others, Dutch refugees heroically persist in their drainage project in spite of the anti-progress and anti-foreign violence of the locals. 

So from the human perspective, the story of the fen drainage is as complex at least as a modern day tale of gentrification or disaster capitalism. From Tiddy Mun’s perspective though, it’s something else. As the story is told (in dialect, unfortunately) in an 1891 article for the journal Folklore, Tiddy Mun’s rage is against all humans, at least for a time. As the fens dry out, he begins by kidnapping Dutch engineers, but when more engineers come to replace them, he starts to persecute the locals as well. Fevers spread, harvests and livestock die, and so do babies. The people perform a ritual of appeasement to Tiddy Mun, pouring out bowls of water and asking for his forgiveness. It’s interesting to me that the ritual is meant to show Tiddy Mun that “Car-folk wished un well, an’ that a’d give un tha watter back if tha only could.” They’re aware that the water they pour out is just symbolic. They can’t turn the fens back into swamps. They can’t save that ecosystem or the spirits that inhabit it: “that poor au’d Boggarts an’ Jack o’ Lanterns wor clean delved away.” It’s almost a mourning ritual, both for the dead children lost to fever, and for Tiddy Mun himself. The story teller in this article agrees that Tiddy Mun is gone by the time of her telling: “Tiddy Mun’s bin frighted away wi’ tha new ways an’ gear.” 

That nothing is “saved” in Tiddy Mun’s story is part of what makes it so interesting to the company as we work on the third part of Malevolent Creatures. In recent studies of the rhetoric of environmentalist and “green” writing, critics have called out the way that nature is often treated as an object of human agency, something outside of human subjects that we act on to save or destroy. This idea of nature as “outside” is, as Timothy Morton has put it, “a fantasy.” We’re just as much a part of “the environment” when we’re sitting in our bedrooms at home or riding in climate-controlled airplane cabins as when we’re perched on top of a mountain, looking out at the clouds below.  When it comes to the world we exist in, there is no below. We can’t really save or destroy “our” world, but with radical changes to the ways that we understand what it means to be human, people might be able to start participating in a world that belongs to everything in it. Tiddy Mun’s is an important story in part because it’s a story not of saving the environment, but of human entanglement with the processes of an ecosystem. It’s a story with no good guys and no bad guys, one that can, perhaps, represent the being and agency of inhuman things, the way that we understand some of what the land says to us not because it speaks in our language, but because it’s what we are.

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Puppets in the Berkshires

Company member Genna Davidson attended a two week puppet intensive up in New England this summer. Here is her account of the trip. 

This past August I spent two weeks in Williamstown, Massachusetts (okay, so it’s not really the Berkshires, but it’s just next door) at the New England Puppet Intensive. I worked alongside an incredible group of artists learning, playing, eating, and sometimes stargazing.

Genna and LindseyThe workshop was held at the Buxton School for the Arts and as the name forewarns, the workshop was intense. The two weeks felt more like two months because we were up at 8:00am and worked until 10:00pm or 11:00pm every day. In the morning we warmed our bodies and minds with yoga. Then we either had drawing or Suzuki (a Japanese approach to actor training). After lunch we would usually break into small groups and work on creating our final 10-minute puppetry piece to be presented at the end of the second week. The “puppet camp” counselors (David, Pete, and Nan) guided us on our journey and provided us with the inspiration for the final performances.

_untitled_ 058This year the theme they gave us to use as a springboard for our work was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was very proud of the performance my group gave. Our exploration of Shelley’s work led to the creation of a puppet who trades her limbs for new ones only to find that she is haunted by the stories attached to each limb. Our piece ended up being somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes long. Ooooops. They didn’t make us cut it shorter though. There were two other small groups. One group meditated the importance of the ones connection to nature, and the other created a piece about creating feminine beauty through destruction of the self. It was inspiring to see how each group took the starting material and ran with it in different directions.

I think the most important thing I learned at the Intensive is that to create work you have to jump in even if things are half done and you can’t see clearly where you’re headed. You have to trust that the story will be what it needs to be and creation is always a journey into the unknown.

Outer Space and Baby Theater

Workshop moment with a rocket ship! Photo courtesy of Arts on the Horizon.

Workshop moment with a rocket ship! Photo courtesy of Arts on the Horizon.

Along with the Capital Fringe Festival and our one-night revival of Saudade, this summer was spent working with our friends at Arts on the Horizon to workshop a new baby-theater show called Space-Bop. It stars a clown and musician who travel into outer space, encountering planets, stars and space creatures. Among the objects we created for them is a colorful rocket ship, a tiny astronaut and a pet star.

One of the challenges of this show was coming up with ways to make objects light up, since light and darkness is important to our ideas of outer space and bright lights are engaging for very young audiences. It was very gratifying at the workshop performances to hear tiny voices say “How does it DO that?” As we look ahead to the full production this winter, we are pulling inspiration from other environments to add to our imagined idea of this space-world.

One big inspiration for our work on this piece was the Australian puppet show The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik. Strangely enough, there are many connections to be made with underwater adventures and outer space. Other sources for visuals include classic moon landing photographs, early cinema such as this gem from Georges Melies and vintage design featuring rocket ships. We will post more process photos as we continue working and if you have a little one or just like wordless theater, be sure to put the show on your calendar for February.

September Grab Bag

A round up of links, videos and articles we highlighted on Twitter this month: 

See #1. Photo from The Independent.

See #1. Photo from The Independent.

  1. A huge animatronic bear appeared on the streets of London this summer to protest drilling in the Arctic.
  2. The living doll artist in this article loves it when people ask “Is he real or unreal?”
  3. The otherworldly sculpture of our favorite artist Shaun Tan will seen be on view in this new book. If only we were going to Australia sometime soon!
  4. In a perfect world, we would collaborate with artist Jonathan Latiano to make some puppet dolphins, along the same line as this exhibit.
  5. Fair warning, this video short from France about shadow puppet artist and animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger is profoundly moving and may make you cry. You can read more about Reiniger’s life and work on our blog.

SAUDADE Audio Clip

 

Saudade7Saudade was based on a series of interviews with immigrants to the DC area from all over the world. Among other questions, I asked everyone about moments when they felt ‘saudade’–the feeling of longing for a place or person you once had that is now gone. Here is a very short audio clip in Portuguese of one of the interviewees from Brazil talking about times when she feels saudade.

Meet Emily Marsh

We’re super excited to welcome Emily Marsh to the Wit’s End team as a puppeteer! She will be performing in Saudade at the Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival at the end of February.

_AB17224Emily MarshPrintEmily Marsh is a singer, actor, puppeteer, and teaching artist based on the east coast. In 2013 she graduated with a BFA in theatre performance from Virginia Commonwealth University. Emily also received training at the Dah Theatre International School, an experimental theatre company based out of Belgrade, Serbia. As a puppeteer Emily has performed all over the midwest as a part of Madcap Puppets, a puppet company based out of Cincinnati OH. She has also performed with Brooklyn Puppetry Arts and interned with Lone Wolf Tribe, a puppetry companies based out of NYC.

IMG_2253As an actor Emily has performed both internationally (Cibiu International Theatre Festival) as well as locally (Imagination Stage, Capital Fringe Festival, KP Educational Theatre) Favorite credits have included Emily’s self-produced solo show Transfixed By the Dahlia performed as part of the United Solo Festival in NYC, and Beirut at Shafer St. Playhouse in Richmond VA. Emily is very excited to be a part of Wit’s End Puppet’s premiere performance of Saudade. When Emily isn’t playing pretend or wiggle dolls, she enjoys causing a ruckus and eating breakfast for dinner.

January Grab Bag

A round-up of videos, links and articles that we highlighted on Twitter this month. 

# 2 Why don't I live in Chicago?

# 2 Why don’t I live in Chicago?

1. These gorgeous shadow puppet photos, based on various mythologies that explain the Northern Lights, were created for Kinfolk magazine.

2. We have fantastic museums here in DC, but I’ve been wishing I could get to Chicago to see this exhibit of puppets at the Art Institute of Chicago.

3. Puppets can illustrate real world issues as well as ancient mythologies. One of our Twitter followers called our attention to this article about Ebola, illustrated with two-dimensional puppets.

4. The creator of the puppets for that article is Jons Mellgren, a director, illustrator and writer from Sweden. Here are photos of one of his stop-motion puppet films, called ‘Paperworld.’

5. Sometimes I think that I must have read every single article and interview with illustrator Shaun Tan. I don’t think I’ve shared this one though, which is a conversation with Neil Gaiman, one of my other favorite writers. It is quite delightful and I hope you enjoy it!